Street photographers love their gear! We all know that as fact. But what gear is best for the genre? With so much to choose from, I’ve narrowed it down a little for those of you who are just joining this fascinating area of photography. The following is based on research, community chatter, and my own experience as a street photographer. Before I begin with a look at specific cameras, it is worth noting that I will only write here of 35mm cameras. Although I do believe that medium format can be used on the street for candid photography, I’ve not seen many great examples of it and will leave the topic for another article.
There are many 35mm film cameras that work well for street photography. Here are a few classics that are totally worth experiencing before it’s too late. By too late, I don’t mean that film is going to die – it isn’t. What it will do, however, is become prohibitively expensive, especially for those photographers that don’t live in major world cities like London or New York where photo labs are still enduring. At the moment, the premium you will spend to shoot film can be recovered in the lowered price of equipment, as many film cameras (on the used market) are at an all-time low in terms of cost. Let’s dig in.
Leica M – The all-time classic street photographer’s camera.
PROS: This thing (for those of you that have not had the pleasure) is built like a tank. Indeed, it was Leica’s build quality on their 35mm cameras that earned them their name (and price point). In the analogue era it paid to invest in a Leica, as it would easily last a lifetime (many original Ms are still in service). Today, given the rapid pace of technology (and Leica’s inability to handle low light in their digital cameras) a Leica is no longer an obvious investment, but I digress. If you want to shoot film, relive the days of Winogrand and Meyerowitz, have the dough, then by all means you cannot go past a Leica M. I recommend the M6. It has a built-in light meter (very accurate) but not other electronics funk up. It’s “the” reliable workhorse for 35mm. So, what’s so great about the Leica M (aside from build quality) you might ask? Essentially, the ability to shoot with a rangefinder, which allows fast focus (or pre-focus) on the streets, and Leica glass. Yes, the Leica lenses are exceptional. Not only do their lenses produce great images, but they are also built well and operate with ease. So, don’t buy an M if you’re going to put cheap Voitlander glass on it. That’s like buying a Porsche with a burnt motor and replacing it with a Ford engine. Go all the way or go home. Well, at least go to another camera.
CONS: Price – although the Leica M has become more accessible in price, it’s still expensive for a 35mm camera. Expect to pay 1500$ for a solid M6 in good condition. That’s just a body remember. Glass (35mm Summicron) will be another 2000$ easy. The M series are also heavy. I actually rarely used mine because of this reason. It is a great desk ornament, but in the field I much prefer the Ricoh GR or the Rollei 35.
Copyright ⓒ Johhny Mobasher
Rollei 35 Classic – The little gem that never caught on.
PROS: Small, fast, and cheap. The Rollei 35 is the smallest all-mechanical 35mm camera in existence. It too is built like a tank. And, unlike the Leica M, it comes with a fixed 40mm lens that features amazing glass – indeed it rivals a Leica in this respect. The lenses were made by Rollei in collaboration with Zeiss. In fact, early editions of the camera feature Zeiss-branded lenses. However, the Rollei version is indistinguishable from the Zeiss labeled versions. Although 40mm may be a little narrow for some for street photography, you do quickly get used to the perspective. I was, eventually, able to shoot without even using the viewfinder! The lens on the Rollei 35 is a zone focus lens. This means you set the distance and then shoot – ideal for grabbing quick street shots. A simple, but reliable, light meter is found on the top panel. This meter, combined with front wheels for setting aperture and speed, make adjusting the camera at hip level a breeze. Another great feature of this camera is the incredibly short film plane and “flip style” pressure plate – they combine to make very sharp images corner to corner. For just a couple hundred dollars you can find a working Rollei 35. However, due to their age, I would recommend buying a “classic” version. They are newer, more robust, and are found in largely unused condition. Expect to pay 1500-2000$ though. Still, given the build quality and the excellent glass, they should still be seen as good value.
CONS: 40mm may be too narrow for some street photographers. The more desirable “classic” version is not exactly cheap. Finally, the camera is overall a “quirky” beast – film loads upside down, for example. Really though, there is little to complain about this camera if you can live in a 40mm world. Oh, and they have pretty solid resale value too — kind of like a Rolex. Yet, (one more thing) like a Rolex, they also have many, many mechanical moving parts that wear over time. When one part goes bust, you’re likely in for a serious repair bill.
Copyright ⓒ Michael Ernest Sweet
Contex T2/T3 – A double-edged sword!
PROS: The Contex T2/T3 series of automatic compact cameras are one of the best ever made in its class. They feature very sharp Zeiss glass (a desirable 35mm Sonnar) and incredibly sexy titanium bodies. The T3 (the most expensive of the range) is very compact and rather fast for an auto-focus camera. Although, you must expect a lag in comparison to the Leica M or Rollei 35. In terms of build quality, these cameras are a double-edged sword. Although robust and well-built, they also have various issues that “develop” as they age. Contax is no longer able to service them either. Parts are scarce and expensive in the independent camera repair circles too. So, you do take a gamble when you buy a Contax T2 or T3. The cameras (a mint T3) can run you as much as 2K. If it breaks you’ll be screwed, no two ways about it. However, you simply cannot get your hands on a better compact 35mm camera anymore.
CONS: Aging electronics are prone to issues. Parts and repair is expensive (at best) or even impossible (at worst). Camera is expensive, period. Focus lag is definitely present and not ideal for the rapid Winogrand-style photographer.
Ricoh GR – The undisputed street photography compact.
PROS: This was Daido’s camera of choice for many years. Although he was drawn to the camera by accident, initially, he stuck with it and for good reason. Among the camera’s many benefits are the incredibly sharp 28mm fixed lens, a super-compact all-metal body, and manual pre-set focus mode. This camera became so iconic for these well-designed features that it is still in production today – in digital form, of course. Yet, from the outside, you’d hardly see a difference from one iteration to the other over the past (nearly) three decades. Beginning with the Ricoh GR1v, the camera came with a focus pre-set feature that allows one to set the focus at 1m, 2m, 3m, 5m, and infinity. This may be the single feature that allowed this beast to become king of the street genre. Later, in the digital variants, Ricoh would step up the game yet again with a unique hybrid focus system, but that’s a story for another day (or another article at least). Finally, one of the things I love most about using this camera is that it just works – no BS. Again and again this camera delivers great results, something that is especially appreciated when you’re shooting film.
CONS: There aren’t many that I can think of, really. Although, price and availability are becoming an issue. Although not especially precious, these cameras do age, as they are electronic with motor-driven lenses. If you’re looking to buy one (usually had for around 1000$ for the GR1v) be careful about its condition. Listen to the motor for weakness and don’t expect the 90s LCD top panel to be legible anymore.
Copyright ⓒ Johhny Mobasher
Olympus MJU II – Quick and Cheap!
PROS: The Olympus MJU II is an unlikely hero. It was manufactured as a cheap, plastic autofocus camera for holidaymakers. Yet, it ended up becoming a cult classic for professionals. There are a few reasons for its attaining status among street photographers, chief among them is its incredibly fast performance. Although there is a lag, and some say its significant, when photographing in bright light (New York summer sidewalks) I never discerned much of a lag. Certainly, I found it to be the fastest autofocus film compact I’ve ever used. The camera sports a 35mm f2.8 lens – the “king” of film-era street photography. Again and Again, this camera made winning images effortlessly for me. The flash also performs well for a cheap compact, if you’re into that.
CONS: The camera does produce “snapshot-feeling” photographs. Put another way, I can tell by glance images that I’ve made with this camera. Although there are many great shots (some that I’ve published and sold), they still have that compact look about them. But hey, if you like the Terry Richardson look, this is the camera that will effortlessly achieve that aesthetic. The other big con these days is price! Although I was able to buy a couple of these in 2015 brand new in the boxes, they seem to be all sold now. On the second hand market, you will still pay new prices (or more) as the supply begins to dry up. Is it worth $100-150 … yes. $200-250? No.
Shooting film is not over just yet. I believe it will become a very niche preference (like daguerreotypes etc.) within a decade or so. But for now, take advantage of its still relative availability. One of films greatest benefits is its inability to deliver instant results. No checking the back of your camera with film. No burst-mode approach to getting a “good photograph” here – unless you want to die like Winogrand, with thousands of undeveloped rolls of film. Shooting film, and dealing with its inherent constraints, forces one to focus on their craft and makes photography a whole lot less like playing the lottery. So, although digital may not kill the radio star, it’s surely going to undergo a beating in this decidedly digital world. Film will become prohibitively expensive for street photography in the not-so-distant future, mark my words. So it goes. Make some negatives now, you’ll be happy you did.
Michael Ernest Sweet is a Canadian award-winning writer, photographer, and teacher. He is the author of two street photography books, The Human Fragment and Michael Sweet’s Coney Island, both from Brooklyn Arts Press. Michael lives in New York City.